The Teacher Interview

Have you ever had the luxury of choosing your child's classroom teacher?   Have you gone to great lengths to investigate personalities, teaching styles, and experience of said teacher?

Now, let's think about this ... if you had the luxury of choosing an 'arts' instructor for your child, and most of the time you do, who would you choose? What characteristics define her*? What is her teaching style? The teacher/student relationship, like any solid union, is two-sided; it requires 100% effort on both sides to work.

Here's a novel thought...what if you interviewed a prospective teacher before committing to lessons? After all, how many interviews did you 'loop-de-loop' through before you landed your most recent job? I'm quite sure you met your employer before your first day on the job. At a bare minimum,  musical goals for your child should align...on both sides.

I spent some time thinking about the subject this summer, and came up with my top three questions that I would like to discuss with potential piano parents. What do you think?

What is your teaching philosophy?

noun phi·los·o·phy \fə-ˈlä-s(ə-)fē\
def. the most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual

Does the teacher's philosophy align with yours? Maybe you aspire to grow your child into a concert pianist, or maybe, you simply want her to develop a life-long love of music, and to have the ability to play later in life? Both are incredibly worthwhile goals. Remember, as you interview, that no matter what your goals are, the right teacher now, for your beginner, may not be the teacher that she will need later.
To accurately assess a teacher, ask yourself these questions:

What do you (as a parent)  want your child to be able to do?  If your child is older, what are his goals for piano lessons?

Let’s take a look at two contrasting examples of a “musical" student.

Student one:

For example, if being musical to you is about:
Students performing classical repertoire: from memory, with stylistic interpretation, a confident stage presence,
…then you’ll likely want a teacher with focus on reading, performance, interpretation and perhaps festivals.

Student two:

However, if your idea of a musical student is one who can:

Confidently play music in any situation,
play something on the spot for their friends,
understand music and play music of any genre,
Accompany a singer or play in a band,
Play while everyone sings “Happy Birthday,”
Improvise something without music,
Sight read for their next church service when the organist is away,
…then your philosophy and teaching focus will likely be completely different.

While the teacher of student one will likely spend lots of time teaching reading, setting students performing tasks, correcting reading and playing mistakes and working to refine students’ technique, the teacher of student two will likely include more improvising, teaching about chords and progressions, accompanying, playing along with backing tracks, duets and learning pieces by rote.

Resource: Piano Teaching Philosophy

Perhaps you want a blend of both?  That's certainly reasonable ... ask if she can do this, too!  Keep in mind that no one individual shines at every thing.  Your perfect teacher for one stage of development, may/may not be the perfect teacher at yet another stage.  

Also, I love to see how character and discipline develop during a student's music lesson 'career'.  Can you see this prospective teacher playing a key role in your child's character development?

What types of music will my child play?

Keep in mind that at first, your child will probably begin with a "method" book. There are many good method books on the market: Faber, Alfred, Bastien, John Thompson, just to name a few. When it comes to these books, your teacher's recommendation is best. Those method books you found in the your newly purchased piano may or may not work for your child.

During your student's piano journey, expect to hear many folk tunes and "made-up" songs (method book compositions) to support the lesson subject of the week. These songs are on the "public domain" list; (their copyrights have expired), thus making the method book affordable to use.  Also, your child will probably know several of these folk tunes, making them fun to play.

Does your intermediate student have her heart set on playing certain types of music (ie. classical, pop, jazz, film music)? If so, ask how your teacher is prepared to support these interests. Will she pay "token" attention to this style and trudge on with her own agenda, or will she devote time, talent and technique to teaching and supporting these interests?

What is the teacher's practice philosophy?

Does her expectations align with your student's abilities and time constraints? If you are parenting "Over-scheduled Olivia," you need to know from the 'get-go' if your prospective teacher expects an impossible 1-2 hours of practice each night. I don't need to tell you that this relationship will probably fall on rocky ground very quickly.

Are the teacher's practice expectations realistic and doable? Keep in mind, the goal of practice is to master a particular skill, not to simply "do your time on the bench."

What is the teacher's performance expectations for your student? Does this align with your expectations of your student?  In general, I believe a few performance opportunities a year is beneficial. Learning music is particularly self-gratifying; but what's more, is the pleasure of sharing it with loved ones. Keep in mind that your student will likely not 'hit a home run' at every recital.  Musically speaking, not every recital or performance will be perfect.  Remember that there is much to be learned by performing with grace; even the most seasoned performer hits clunkers (they just know how to cover for them)!

My most mortifying teacher experience was a "train-wreck" Fur Elise performance. For weeks, this young teen procrastinated practice. The recital date came, and her parents felt strongly that she should perform. Against my better judgment (yet, hoping for the best), she stumbled through Fur Elise. Wouldn't you know, it was that recital that I chose to professionally tape for the students?

I talked to this same student, as a young adult, some 10 years after the recital. As it turns out, as painful as it was for all of us, Mom and Dad gave this young girl a learning experience she'd not quickly forget. She learned how important it is to take seriously her obligations, and that 'putting off until tomorrow, what you could do today,' is not a wise when it comes to practice.

I leave you with few final suggestions:

· Ask to attend the teacher's recital. This will tell you a lot about her style and her studio.
· Ask for a referral list of her current/past students. Ask these same questions. The answers should align.

Asking a few questions before lesson begin will perhaps prevent the need to prematurely sever a student/teacher relationship in the future. Good luck!

*I use the feminine pronoun in this article for simplicity sake. I recognize that both students and teachers exist in both genders.

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